Sunday, December 17, 2017


An academic report by Bunmi Agusto. 

In the past, the recording and preservation of history had not been taken seriously enough in some African countries. A prime example is my home country Nigeria. When I was a child, History –as a subject- was scrapped from the country’s national curriculum so I was hardly taught Nigerian history let alone Nigerian art history. I had to go out of my way to find books and articles about the masks and sculptures that make up most of Nigeria’s rich art history. However, whilst conducting all this research, I discovered something: Western authors and researchers had and have been the ones recording and preserving our history for us.

“If Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear.”
 - Ousmane Sembene. 

The desire to finally extensively record Art History from an African’s perspective has come at a crucial time. Although we have seen African artists succeed internationally in the past, we are no longer in the age of postcolonial modernism. We are no longer just living in a post-colonialism, post-empire world; we are in the age of the diaspora and we are in the age of globalisation. There is no longer a single unified point of view of a culture or from a culture. This has led to shows like the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair which annually exhibits the work of African Artists in London, New York and now Marrakech. I was lucky enough to attend the fair in London in October where the works of two artists –Lina Iris Viktor and Kudzanai-Violet Hwami- grabbed my attention. As children of the diaspora, Viktor was raised in London by her Liberian parents whilst Hwami was raised in Zimbabwe but received a portion of her education in London. Therefore, I shall be analysing each of the solo exhibitions held in London by these two African artists who have been highly influenced by the London Art Scene and now represent a sector of it. As Stuart Elliot said during his lecture Making The Rounds, at every point in history, there is a dominant culture, residual culture and an emerging culture. Therefore, I see the work of Viktor, Hwami and myself as part of the emerging African culture.

Lina Viktor’s Exhibition at the Amar Gallery

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s Exhibition at the Tyburn Gallery
The title of an exhibition helps define the context in which the artist made a collection of artworks. Subsequently, both exhibitions have highly significant titles which hint at the idea of being a member of the diaspora. The title of Hwami’s exhibition is 'If You Keep Going South You’ll Meet Yourself' which suggests that one needs to travel and be moulded by different experiences and cultures to truly be able to know oneself.

“The beauty of being a child of the diaspora is that we are able to reinvent ourselves and what it means to be African.”
 -Kudzanai-Violet Hwami

As previously stated, there is no longer a single unified view of a culture and Hwami recognises that. Whilst studying in London, Hwami was able to adopt a different standpoint and view her home country from an outsider’s point of view. Although Zimbabwe has suffered from dictatorship and other hardships, Hwami is hopeful for the future of her nation and that is why she chooses to present “a futuristic vision of African life, a fictional utopia filled with creativity and without borders.” On the other hand, Viktor chose to give her exhibition the title 'Black Exodus' which alludes to the biblical story of the Israelites migrating out of Egypt in search for better lives and also draws parallels to the migration of Africans over the years. Although Hwami is hopeful for the future of Africans, Viktor is more troubled and curious about the future of Africans dispersed all over the world if society continues on its tangent of prejudice. Fundamentally, Viktor has a realist approach rather than Hwami’s optimistic one. I personally identify as more of a realist than an optimist but I appreciate Hwami’s view and the vision of Africans presented when she and Viktor’s work are put side-by-side.

A curious similarity between both exhibition spaces is that they are both underground, almost suggesting that post-modernism contemporary African art is a still a hidden treasure waiting to be unearthed and brought to the spotlight. In addition, both underground exhibitions lack windows and this excludes the outside environment for the viewers and makes them feel like they have truly travelled to a different space. This effect enhances the works of both artists as it complements the idea of the travelling aspect of the diasporic lifestyle.

On the other hand, there is a stark difference between the rooms holding each exhibition; Black Exodus is in a dark, black room whilst If You Keep Going South You’ll Meet Yourself is in a bright, white room. The contrasting spaces emphasise the difference in the artists’ perspectives on the direction in which the story of Africans and their migration is going in. In some illustrations of Africa during the 4 colonial eras such as in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, the continent is often referred to as the “dark continent” in need of enlightenment and Viktor plays with this idea using the space and lighting of her exhibition and the works themselves. In the all black room, there is a suggestion that one’s journey is ambiguous and mysterious; however, the spotlights illuminate these golden artworks that draw the viewers in. Within these artworks are elusive black figures that blend in with the space as well as golden symbols. 

Pictures I took of VIktor's work in 'Black Exodus'.

The gold lines and patterns allude to Egyptian hieroglyphics which in itself gives an example of the benefits of Africans narrating their own stories. Unlike most Africans, Egyptians narrated their own history through hieroglyphics written in stone rather than orally and this has allowed their representations of their people to not be susceptible to alterations and therefore to be viewed as majestic and dignified, unlike many African countries which were seen as savage and primitive. The elusive black figures in Viktor’s work are photographs of the artist herself covered in black paint which makes her work an example of her taking charge of her own narratives. The figures are mostly camouflaged within the background but are made obvious with their gold hair; this creates dystopian images of a majestic creature forced into hiding and irrelevance by society. Oddly, although both artists are presenting narratives of Africans of the diaspora. Black Exodus is a representation of a dystopian world for Africans while If You Keep Going South You’ll Meet Yourself is utopian.

Violet Hwami’s ‘Family Portrait’.

Hwami’s vision of a fictional African utopia is amplified through the vibrancy of the colour she uses and it comes to life due to the fact that most of her paintings are life-sized. On the contrary to Viktor’s Black Exodus, Hwami defines her intentions as wanting “the portrayal to be playful and fun,” she adds that she “definitely [doesn’t] want to convey a negative image of the characters in [her] paintings”. Hwami, as an African narrator, has chosen not to present the Zimbabwean characters in a negative light and although this may be a biased narration, it is certainly different from western narrations of Africans. Hwami’s method involves using old family photos and manipulating them using a computer software before finally painting them. Therefore, there is nothing primitive about Hwami’s work; she is able to refer to her past African life in a modern way and her paintings appear slightly unfinished and manipulated, almost as if they too are being altered and shaped by the experience of being a part of the diaspora. This method and its effect on the final appearance of the paintings coupled with the exhibition’s title shows Hwami’s opinion of how diverse experiences help to form a more complicated sense of identity for an African such as herself.

Images of my ongoing work. 

Like Viktor, I tend to work with self-portraits and images of people I take pictures of in my everyday life. However, I never thought to make the connection that I was doing it to present my side of the African narrative. Often when I go home to Nigeria, I get comments from older Nigerians saying my work is “not African enough” and they also ask why some faces are so dramatic and sad. Now, I see my work as a mid-point between Viktor and Hwami’s work; I am more critical of the societies I have lived in as well as both the restrictions and benefits of tradition in African culture. Furthermore, I have concluded that I am not sure where the Nigerian story is going. A single perspective does not always make an accurate unbiased story but it is a piece of the puzzle. Hwami and Viktor’s exhibitions in London are puzzle pieces that form a part of the picture of emerging African and diasporic culture. Thanks to these artists and their exhibitions, I no longer see not being “African enough” as an insult but to see it as validation that I am neither part of dominant Nigerian culture nor of residual Nigerian culture; I am part of an emerging diasporic culture that will one day be dominant.

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